I first heard about running the Grand Canyon (specifically rim to rim to rim/R2R2R/double crossing) when I was living in LA in 2011. Likely, it was in the same conversation that I learned about people who run ultramarathons – any distance longer than a marathon, usually 50K/50M/100K/100M. I had no idea that people actually ran anything longer than a marathon! While the idea of running 100 miles has taken, and is taking, a while to grow on me, I was immediately captivated with the possibility of running across the Grand Canyon. The seed was planted in my head and it continued to grow and grow over the last 4 years.
In October 2013 I was all set up to do the run with a group of friends from LA. My flights were booked, lodging was set up, and then the US Federal Government shut down because they ran out of money, or whatever. That meant all US National Parks were closed, including the Grand Canyon. How can you close a part of nature?! The shutdown started a couple weeks before we had scheduled our run so we were confident the situation would be sorted out in time, but it wasn’t, and instead, I spent a weekend in Sedona running around the red rocks. I also had an opportunity to do the run in 2014 but that particular weekend didn’t work with my schedule. So I kept waiting for a group to join but that never happened. Eventually I decided that since my schedule is somewhat tight, with Ironman training and other travels, and that since I knew quite a few people who had done R2R2R already, I would be able to get enough information from them but I could organize it myself and find a time that suited my schedule to best. And so, the Rim to Rim to Rim adventure of May 2015 was born.
We arrived in Phoenix Saturday afternoon. There were four of us – myself, Rob, Tessa, and Suzanne. Suzanne was fresh off running the Mustang Race in Nepal (and helping out after her trip was modified because of the earthquakes) and we all had a lot of catching up to do. After a couple (not so quick) stops at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Safeway we made the 4 hour drive to the South Rim. We got to the South Rim Village sometime after 7pm so had to make quick work of photos before the sun went down. Gazing out across the canyon, when you can’t see the bottom and you can barely see the other side, I really started to wonder what we had got ourselves in to. The only word I can use to describe what I was looking at is “impossible”. It looked impossible that someone could make it across there in a week, let alone in one day. Good thing it got dark quickly because if I had stared at it much longer I might have talked myself out of it!
We checked in at the Bright Angel Lodge and quickly found some food to eat and then discussed plans for the morning. The plan was to have our alarms set at 3:30am (wtf), call a cab at 4am, and be on the trail shortly after that. The big concern though, was the weather. For Memorial Day weekend the weather was unusually cold and unsettled. That evening on the Rim was seriously freezing and the forecast for the morning was 33F and a chance of rain. This is similar to what we’ve been training in but we were all expecting warmer temperatures. Also, I had spent 14 hours being cold at IM Tahoe and I am still traumatized by that race and I was really scared to be cold for that long again. But there was a fine balance between having enough/too many clothes and enough/not enough nutrition in our packs. Layers of warm clothes take up precious space in running packs devoted to nutrition, but being too cold could end the day just as much as not having enough nutrition. Back in our rooms we got our bags packed for the morning and tried to sleep (that was also impossible). Normally I don’t get nervous before races and I can sleep no problem but this one was different. I was primarily just so scared to be cold that I spent the few hours we had to sleep tossing and turning debating about what clothes I was going to wear.
Our alarm went off at 3:30am. It was hell. I really try my best to not get up, ever, before 7am so this was rough. I had decided to buy a warmer jacket that Tessa had brought with her, in the interest of being warm. I just needed to settle my mind. My clothing consisted of: toque, running jersey, Lululemon long sleeve, vest, jacket, skirt, knee warmers, compression calf sleeves, and mitts. My Betty trucker hat was attached to my pack. On my feet I wore (pink!) Newton Boca ATs. I probably didn’t need the knee warmers and I likely would have been fine with my original lighter windbreaker I brought but I had peace of mind that I wouldn’t be cold and that mattered a lot! My Ultraspire Zygos pack was full of food – Buddy Fruits baby food, Hammer peanut butter gels, PB&J on croissants, Snickers bars, trail mix, and Skratch. I was estimating for 200 cal/hr over 15 hours, with some extra just in case. I also had Salt Stick salt pills, Tums, Pepto pills, and Advil 🙂
The cab dropped us off at the South Kaibab trailhead about 4:40am. We really wanted to start by 5am to beat the mule train that heads down the trail to Phantom Ranch. There was another group of 3 runners starting their R2R2R as well and they took off a few minutes before us. We took the obligatory “before” photos, took a deep breath, and at 4:50am we started our watches and headed into the Canyon.
We all had headlights which were useful for a little while in the morning. The sky was full of clouds so unfortunately we were never able to see the sunrise from the trail, which I’ve heard is amazing. Next time!
The trail is immaculate. It’s the most well maintained trail I’ve ever seen, and that sentiment continued for the entire day. There are rock and log steps made into the trail (which become like little Mt Everests at the end of the day) and drainage tracks off the sides. There had been some rain in the days before our run so a lot of the path was big puddles but they were easy enough to avoid.
The canyon was very green. I didn’t expect that. And the cacti were blooming with all colours of beautiful flowers. We stopped a lot in the first couple of hours to take photos, and still, we feel like we didn’t take enough!
A few other groups of runners passed us, I couldn’t believe how fast they were running downhill! I was just trying to save something my legs, I didn’t want to burn them out on the first descent! The SK trail is about 7 miles long, downhill, with the steepest section at 22% – that’s a lot of pounding in the legs without a proper warmup!
There were lots of hikers too, some going down like us, and others already coming up so early in the morning. We ended up leap frogging a bunch with a guy named Andy. He was just hiking but because we were taking so many photos it took us about the same amount of time to get to the river!
Unknowingly I had put myself in a really great mindset. As much as I was completely overjoyed to finally be running in the Grand Canyon, I had not allowed myself to think of the entire run at one time. I was really just taking it one step at a time down South Kaibab, and trying not to fall! We enjoyed being able to talk amongst our group as we stuck close together, and also to be able to complain about all the steps! I was not expecting those steps. My Newtons were perfect, especially since we had to dodge puddles most of the way down which meant stepping to the side of the trail. Road shoes would not have been good enough.
Reaching the Colorado was our first big achievement. It felt awesome. We had dropped about 4800ft from the South Rim! The river was so green and beautiful, and definitely powerful. Shortly after crossing the river we arrived at Phantom Ranch, a campground with a restaurant and cabins in the bottom of the canyon.
We didn’t spend too much time in Phantom Ranch as the canteen wasn’t open yet and we will had plenty of water because of the cool, overcast skies. We joined onto the North Kaibab trail which is about 14 miles from Phantom Ranch to the North Rim.
The bottom of the canyon was very green and humid! It never got really hot, the forecast was for mid 70s which is perfect running temperature. Although blue sky and sunshine makes for even more beautiful photos in the Grand Canyon, it would have been too hot for us Canadians. That being said, by the time we got to Phantom Ranch, we had most of our layers off.
The trail runs alongside a creek and the sound of the moving water was very soothing. We had entered what we thought of as a side canyon, an off-shoot of the main Canyon. The trail was gently sloping upwards for about 7 miles, definitely runnable but relentless. There were lots of these weird Dr Suess cactus flowers bending up to the sky. We were able to dip our heads in a stream at one point which brought a lot of relief. Then we almost mistakenly sidetracked to Ribbon Falls. A group of hikers was standing right in front of the directional sign and Suzanne took off down the wrong trail! I have heard that Ribbon Falls is beautiful but we didn’t want to add on the extra mileage to an already long day.
We got to Cottonwood fairly unscathed and actually caught up to the group of 3 who left the South Kaibab trailhead before us. We ended up leapfrogging them and chatting with them a lot of the way up to the North Rim. They were Ironman athletes as well. We filled up our packs with water and continued on. I had iodine pills with me in case of water breaks but I never used them. The Grand Canyon water was delicious and no one in our group got sick.
Shortly after Cottonwood the trail makes a left and starts heading *straight* up the canyon wall. This section was not runnable for us and yet this trail was my favourite part of the day. The trail is literally carved right into the side of the canyon. I have no idea how they made it! I am not scared of heights so the narrow trail and steep cliff didn’t bother me but I imagine that someone who is nervous would have a difficult time. There was no problem moving around puddles or passing other hikers. That being said, I did remind myself to be very careful to not trip, which I have a habit of doing, because a fall could really be deadly.
At some point everyone in our group turned inward and into survival mode to get to the top. Rob motored on ahead as he was really keen on getting to the Rim as soon as possible. Suzanne and I had a long conversation about if we were getting cold and if we should stop to put on more layers. We were now gaining elevation rapidly and the temperature was falling just as fast. I was fine, my hands were warm which is a sign to me that I’m dressed properly and doing ok. I was also worried about stopping and then having to get going again. We decided to wait until the top to add more clothes. Tessa continued to move strong and silent up the steep trail.
For about 2 hours we continually asked hikers coming down “how much longer until the top?” And for those 2 hours, the answer was always “about 30 more minutes!” Seriously. It was really growing thin on us when we had heard 30 more minutes for over an hour and we STILL had more than 30 minutes to go!
We knew the North Rim was about 8000 feet (actually 8250 – that extra 250 feet was sure a surprise!) and Rob had altitude on his watch which was really helpful because he could yell out “800 feet to go!” “600 feet to go!” Measuring progress by altitude was better than by distance because Garmins don’t work well in the Canyon. That’s why every report on R2R2R you read has a different total distance for the same trails. My trusty Garmin 920 gave me 3 erroneous miles throughout the day, in which it told me we were running from 4:00-6:00 min/mile. I can 100% guarantee we did not get anywhere close to a 6 minute mile and a 4 minute mile is just laughable.
Suzanne, Tessa, and I were making our way up, up, up when TJ, the guy from the morning, and who we had passed at Cottonwood came up behind us. I have no idea why but I decided to stick on his heels. I dug deep and stayed with him and eventually we passed Rob. Rob is a really good fast hiker, I am not. I have short legs and I walk slow at the best of times. Fast hiking is an area of ultra running I really need to improve. But there I was, passing Rob! He was shocked. He said he’s never seen me hike up so fast. And it was steep. Eventually the trail turned to mud due to the snow and hail the night before. Luckily, we did almost all our training on muddy trails in Bragg Creek so it felt like home for us!
We reached the North Kaibab trailhead after about 6h50min of running time and about 22 miles. I felt great. I had been really diligent with my hydration and nutrition and all systems were still go. Never once did it cross my mind that I would have to take the bus back to the South Rim. We had each packed $85 for the bus in case shit hit the fan at the North Rim. The other 3 in our group said they had all considered it on the trail up and Rob said if I had even just mentioned it to him, he would have been on that bus no problem. But it wasn’t an option for me. We emptied our packs of trash (there are no garbage cans below the rims, only at the trailheads on the rims) and filled our packs again. We also got really cold, really quickly so all our layers went back on and we got started on Round 2.
Running down the North Kaibab trail was one of the best parts of the day. Almost every hiker we had passed on the way up, and who were still continuing up, had huge praise for us turning around and heading back to the South Rim. We got so many awesome, encouraging comments, I totally felt like a badass!
We were back to running downhill which was a nice change after a few hours of uphill hiking but those damn stairs really started to take their toll. The views were even better on the way down, if that’s even possible!
After about 8 hours of running and 28 or so miles my knees really started to bother me. It was not a bone on bone, or cartilage or ligament problem, it felt like my knees were super swollen and that if I looked down at them they would be 10 times their normal size. And the downhill really aggravated that feeling. I was still able to run but I had to slow down. I’ve never experience that feeling before, maybe just because I’ve never run 50 miles before! I’m not worried about it, I think it’s just something I need to get used to and train my knees for if I continue on in ultra running.
Once we got back to Cottonwood we didn’t really know how long much further it was to Phantom Ranch. Why oh why didn’t we find a list of trail distances!! This part of the run seemed to go on FOREVER! It was never ending. The sun had finally come out and it was really warming up. But the biggest problem was that the canteen at Phantom Ranch that supposedly has lemonade, was closing at 4pm. It was around 3pm and I was pretty sure we had 7+ miles to go. That would mean holding a pace for over 10km we hadn’t held all day. Coupled with my “swollen” knees I was pretty sure we weren’t getting any lemonade. Suzanne ran ahead and made a valiant effort to reach Phantom before 4pm but it didn’t happen. I’ve heard that’s the best lemonade in the world too!
Rob and I kept moving forward, the steps downhill and water drains were getting harder and harder to step over. We started seeing a lot of lizards running on to the trail, I guess to sun themselves. Then we came upon a sizeable frog on the trail. Rob was able to get quite close to him and take his picture. He was so close to this frog that it prompted me to ask “is he alive?” Rob inched his toe closer and close to the frog and finally gave it a tap and the frog did not respond. Rob thought maybe he was sleeping (!) but I’m pretty sure he was dead. So now, we have a beautiful photo of a (freshly) dead frog in the Grand Canyon!
My knees continued to ache. It was pretty bad. Eventually Rob and I discussed it and thought I should try taking off my compression socks because maybe the compression was causing fluid to back up in my knees. I have no idea if it helped, I know it was a complete struggle to get them off, and it felt good to have my legs free again, so who knows.
Close to Phantom Ranch we somehow caught back up with Tessa and we ran into Phantom Ranch together. We had all missed the canteen hours so no lemonade. I headed straight for a picnic table because I really wanted to lay down. I took off my shoes and socks and held my feet up in the air which felt so good. After not long enough, we were back on the trail for the final climb.
We took the Silver Bridge back over the Colorado this time and started up the Bright Angel trail. The route we ran, South Kaibab-North Kaibab-Bright Angel, is the “classic” R2R2R route. South Kaibab is steeper and does not have any water stops while Bright Angel is supposedly less steep (it’s still steep!) and has water stops which are especially important on hot days. The girls had got ahead of us again because we were taking photos, again. Rob challenged me to stay on his heels as he picked up the hiking pace and we eventually caught the girls.
When we were standing on the South Rim the night before, we were looking at a big plateau with a trail seemingly falling off the edge. We didn’t really know what we were looking at but we assumed that was the Bright Angel trail. So as we’re hiking up and up and up and looking at these huge canyon walls towering above us, we all kept wondering when and how we were going to get on that plateau.
There were lots of weird noises, I think frogs, which I teased Rob were the pissed off brothers and sisters of the dead frog he took a picture of, and they were coming to get him. We got super close to a cute deer eating leaves.
We reached Indian Garden (not aware that we had seen it from the South Rim) and filled our packs again. My stomach was still feeling fine, in fact it “worked” all day but somewhere around here I just sort of stopped eating. Looking back, this is where my day took a turn for the worse. I should have kept eating because I was totally able to, I just didn’t want to. We also saw a sign that read 4.7 miles to the South Rim. That should have been a sign of hope but I started doing math on the amount of time it might take us to travel those 4.7 miles and then my head started getting in my way.
Somewhere around 8:30pm Rob and I switched on our headlights and things got really bad for me. I’m not scared of the dark but I think losing a visual reference for the top of the Canyon was devastating for my mind. All we could see was headlights winding back and forth on the switchbacks above. I don’t really have any experience running in the dark so I’m certain that played a role as well and is something I need to work on. Lots of bugs came out on the trail including a scorpion, which didn’t even bother me, which shows how tired I was! Our lights also scared the shit out of a deer and he jumped straight off the cliff – he was fine but I thought we were going to be dealing with the trauma of seeing a deer jump to his death!
I cried almost every step of the last 3 miles. Epic meltdown. Some of it was straight up hyperventilating hysterical crying and some was just quiet crying. I wanted to be done SO bad and even 2 miles seemed too far and impossible. The demons in my mind were telling me I couldn’t do it even though I knew I could. I think I get really frustrated when part of my mind starts telling me those bad things but the other part is telling me and can do it, so a war starts in my head and all I can think of to do is to cry. But I never stopped moving. The same thing happens to me in Ironman. Rob had to turn to threats to get me to stop crying. He would say “if you don’t calm yourself down I’m going to call the rangers and they’ll carry you out of here on a stretcher. Is that what you want?!” He knew, of course, that was going to happen over my dead body. Sleeping on the trail with the scorpions wasn’t an option either! Rob was also forcing me to stop and drink some of his Gatorade every so often because he thought I needed more sugar. One time he pointed out the first building light on the Rim that we could see and that sent me spiralling into despair again. But through all this we continued to pass others heading up the trail. I’m really thankful Rob was strong and stayed with me through those last few miles (and all day) because I really needed him to be there!
Finally at 9:15pm we reached the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim! My Garmin says 49.79 miles, 14:33 moving time, 10515 ft ascent, 10872 ft descent (so 21300 ft elevation change – holy shit!). That’s a BIG run!
For the last mile for sure, I was 100% done with running, trail running, Ironman, anything athletic. I didn’t want to run another step in my life. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to fill my time but I was certain I would not be doing any more endurance events. Almost immediately I went into a fairly severe shivering phase, my teeth were chattering so hard I thought I might break them! Once back in the hotel room I just really needed to lay down. My feet have never been so sore. I couldn’t stop rubbing the arches and moving my toes. The aching was spectacular! My knees were also still sore, but they had been for hours so I guess I was just used to it. Suzanne, who didn’t seem to be in any pain at all, was kind enough to get me ice for my knees and that helped a lot. I was really worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night but thankfully the poor and short sleep the night before and the massive effort combined to grant me deep and peaceful sleep.
It was really cool waking up on the rim so we could examine what we had accomplished the day before. We realized we had no idea what we were looking at, what cracks we had run through, when we peered over the edge the evening we arrived. We found the big crack we ascended on Bright Angel beside the plateau we were looking for for so long. We saw the side canyon that took us over to the north rim. We saw the switchbacks of Bright Angel that we had climbed in the dark, that had played with my mind so much. And still, even though we had run it all, it seemed impossible.
My legs continued to be unbelievably sore for 2 days. It was a little worse than after an open marathon, although I always seem to forget exactly what it feels like after these things. Stairs were a no-go, and even small sidewalk curbs brought a tear to my eye! I found I really needed to swing my right hip laterally to get my right leg to move forward. Sometimes if felt as if my leg wasn’t mine! Then almost in a single instant, my legs went back to normal. Almost a week later, my legs feel totally fine but I’m quite fatigued. I could sleep all day. I’ve taken my recovery very seriously – for 6 days I did absolutely nothing except eat, sleep, and work. I did a 2000m swim the following Saturday just to make sure I could, since I haven’t swam since March and, well, I have a 70.3 in a week. And I’ve been on my bike a couple times as well. I have been really surprised at the level of general fatigue (it probably shouldn’t be a surprise but it is!) I’m experiencing. It’s been very pronounced, worse than post-Ironman fatigue. So I’ve been really careful to not dig myself into a hole before the triathlon season even starts and have changed any goals I had for the 70.3 (a run PR) to a big catered training day, which is more fun anyway!
I have been dealing with a sore muscle or tendon or something, no one knows, in my right butt (literally, it’s been a pain in the ass) for the last 6 or 7 weeks. It hurts pretty much every time I move from sitting to standing, and I can’t make my right leg go straight. It feels like a muscle in my butt and hamstring has been contracted for 7 weeks. The main suspects are quadratus femoris and obturator internis. They’re small little muscles deep to the glute max and I’m discovering they’re very hard to stretch and to “get at”. My butt has been rolled, poked, proded, I’ve done IMS, Graston, ART and nothing has cured it. But this whole time, I’ve been able to run completely without pain. Like zero pain. And I’m not making that up just so I could do this run. It does not bother me at all when I run. I didn’t feel the pain for one second in the Grand Canyon, not running flat, hiking uphill, or running downhill. How is that possible?! It’s a complete mystery to all the health professionals who have tried to fix it. Now, since the R2R2R it actually feels like I have more mobility in that leg, the injury is definitely not worse, but my plan is to not run for at least 2 weeks and keep stretching it and hope for the best!
And oh yeah, I’m fully back on the endurance sports train. I was as soon as I woke up the next morning. I’m already looking at options for my first actual 50 miler and without a doubt, I would do the R2R2R again.
*many of the above photos were taken by Rob, who’s turned himself into quite an awesome photographer!